Small things


By Architect Don Bunting


Many simple things, particularly in the field of human hygiene, can appear to have always been there; with who discovered them long forgotten.

For example, commercial toilet paper was invented by American Joseph Gayetty as late as 1857 — another reason to be thankful we live now and not in the early 19th Century.

Alexander Cumming was an 18th and early 19th Century scientist and instrument inventor.

In his spare time he designed and patented the first smell-free, flush toilet — not Thomas Crapper, who was merely a manufacturer of ceramic toilet bowls.

Cumming invented the s-bend, a simple but effective water trap to prevent drainage smells from re-entering the toilet bowl.

The invention was introduced to the general public at the Great London Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851. The entry to the display cost a penny, providing a possible source of the common phrase “to spend a penny”.

As well as the unpleasant nature of sanitary smells, some believed that diseases, in particular cholera, were spread through the air.

The discovery of how diseases such as cholera were spread needed, first, a great stink and, much later, recognition for the true hero of the day by songwriter Bob Dylan.


The great stink of 1858

 The Great Stink of London in 1858 led to many world-changing developments in science and engineering. The stink’s source was the River Thames, at that time becoming an open sewer, with an increasing amount of sewage from Alexander Cumming’s flush toilet.

Unfortunately, smells and worse weren’t removed by the s-bend — they were merely deflected into the sewers and streams for everyone to “enjoy”.

Scientist Michael Faraday had reported a few years earlier that Thames river water was “an opaque pale brown fluid containing dense clouds of fecal matter, and anyone who inhales the smell can never forget it and count themselves lucky if they live to remember it”.

Between 1831 and 1854 three cholera epidemics hit London, with more than 14,000 Londoners dying. But it took a heat wave in 1858 for the matter to be brought to a head.

Again, it was a relative unknown who discovered the real cause of the disease. Physician John Snow was not convinced by the “miasma” theory, where the disease was supposedly spread through the air.

After a careful study of disease statistics, he decided to remove the handles from a water pump providing drinking water in an area badly affected by cholera. The results were profound, with no further cases occurring in that area.

People love to come up with theories over the meaning of Bob Dylan’s song lyrics. I like to think that the line from Subterranean Homesick Blues — “The pump don’t work cause the vandals took the handles” — was Bob’s way of recognising John Snow’s pioneering research.

It took some time for people to accept that the disease was not spread by smells but, instead, by water.

However, the Big Stink of 1858 at least persuaded Parliament, positioned as it unfortunately was, right alongside the Thames, to pass legislation leading to London’s first effective sewage system and the provision of clean drinking water.

Next time you complain about a slight wiff of chlorine from your drinking water, think of John Snow, and also reflect on the fact that 2.5 billion people around the world still don’t have access to sanitation.

Even more revealing of how our world is currently tracking, is that more people now own a mobile phone than have a flush toilet in their home.


Getting plastered

What connects diarist Samuel Pepys to modern building regulations?

Pepys wrote the most complete account of the disastrous 1666 fire of London. In its aftermath, Louis X1V of France ordered that all walls made of wood in central Paris be immediately covered in plaster to prevent a similar catastrophe in his capital city.

Fortunately, there was a ready source of calcium sulphate in the hills of Montmartre.

Charles II of England heard about this new building regulation, and decided that a similar rule should be introduced in London, unless a building was constructed of brick or stone.

This was the catalyst for the development of the very first construction regulations. And even 350 years later, gypsum plasterboard remains a vital part of our construction armoury for constructing fire-proof walls and ceilings.


Very small things

American Edward Hamlin Everett turned a very small thing, the modern screw top bottle cap, into a very large fortune in the early 20th Century.

When he decided to build a mansion on Sheridan Circle in Manhattan, his instructions to architect George Totten Jr were simple and to the point.

He told him “to spend and to dream”. Those really were, for architects at least, “the good old days”.



Consider the following quote from a recent opinion piece in the New Zealand Herald:

They are highly regarded specialists in their area, with considerable expertise in advising and interpreting laws and standards.

It is their work that guarantees that buildings meet the rigorous and necessary standards.

And who are these paragons? The answer, it appears, are building consent officers.

Having some direct knowledge of the difficulties faced by BCAs in issuing consents, I wouldn’t take on the job for any money.

It is difficult and demanding, and can involve battling through some poorly prepared documentation.

However, statements such as the one above, are unhelpful. The industry needs more professionalism in all roles, and pretending that BCAs contain teams of such highly trained staff is unhelpful.

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